Crowdsourcing the Birds

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Published on March 27th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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In honor of the groundbreaking new report, The State of the Birds, this week has been unofficially dubbed “Bird Week” on Cool Green Science. (See our migratory bird expert Dave Mehlman’s posts on the report.)

My contribution to “Bird Week” has to do with flocks — but not flocks of birds — flocks of data and flocks of people.

It turns out that information on migratory birds is one of the best sources of data we have on the effects of climate change. Migratory bird data allows scientists to track subtle changes in climate that force birds to migrate earlier or later in the season and to different geographies.

Using bird migration to study climate is part of a growing area of science known as phenology, the study of plant and animal life cycles and how they are influenced by season and climate. (This should not be confused with phrenology, which is something completely different…the reading of bumps on the head to gain clues to personality.)

While using this migratory data is great — the North American Bird Phenology Program (NABPP) has 6 million data points going back to the 1880s — there is one very significant problem: Those 6 million data points primarily exist on handwritten note cards stored in 40 file cabinets in a basement in Virginia. Wired’s Science blog has the details.

This is where the flocks of humans come in. The best way to enter that data into a useable (ie. digital) database is for someone to do some serious data entry. In the past, the government would have packed the note cards up and sent them off to a transcription company. But times are tough and budgets are tight, so the program is taking a different approach — crowdsourcing.

The NABPP is looking for volunteers to enter the card data into their database using scanned copies of the note cards and a web-based form. Each card is transcribed by two separate volunteers and the transcriptions are matched to check for errors before the record is officially entered into the database.

According to Wired, the program has secured 400 volunteers for the effort and they are looking for more. Anyone interested in volunteering can head over to the NABPP website and sign up. After a 15 minute training session, you’ll get your virtual stack of note cards and become part of the crowdsource.

If you care about birds and you care about climate change, it’s a great way to help.

(Photo by: Eugene Zemlyanskiy. Used under a Creative Commons License.)

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